Tuesday, August 28, 2018
This week is what the undergraduate community at my university affectionately calls “syllabus week"--that is, five glorious days where each professor reviews his/her expectations for the course, and does not address any substantive (read, "testable") material. In law school, however, we all know that classwork actually begins on (or, more likely, even before) the first day of school. But, in honor of “syllabus week,” I thought it would be helpful to revisit what makes a great syllabus.
First, include all of the mandatory information, per university or law school policy. This might include your contact information, statements on diversity and inclusion, weather cancellation policies, and accessibility services.
Next, address frequently asked questions in a FAQs section, including responses to:
What should I do if I’m going to be late or absent?
Do I really need the newest edition of the textbook?
I am petrified about being called on in class. Any suggestions?
What’s your grading policy on late assignments?
Is this subject tested on the bar exam?
What supplemental study resource(s) do you recommend for this course?
Where do I go if I’m having difficulty understanding the course material?
When are your office hours? Do I need an appointment?
How do I enroll in TWEN or register for CALI Lessons (if used in the course)?
Then, set reasonable expectations for reading assignments. (This is usually the hardest step!) According to the advice I received at the “AALS Workshops for New Law School Teachers” event (a.k.a baby teacher school), law professors should assign no more than 25 pages of reading per class hour. Most professors, however, can only cover about 15 pages of material per hour when working with first-year students or dense material. If you’re having trouble figuring out how much material you should cover in a course, consider contacting the textbook’s author or publisher. Most authors and publishers have several different sample syllabi, depending on credit allocation and number of class meeting times.
Also, take Professor James McGrath's suggestion and incorporate formative assessment activities directly into the syllabus to hold yourself and the students accountable. For example, perhaps every third class you set aside a few minutes for some multiple-choice questions. Or, alternatively, you may want to reserve the last two minutes of each class for students to write down their big takeaway from day’s lecture.
After the substance is on paper, consider revamping the format to include an infographic, like this one:
If you're looking for even more suggestions, check out these links:
Finally, if you don’t teach a course of your own, consider offering to help your colleagues improve their syllabi. While a syllabus can be a very personal thing, you still might be able to offer some “best practices” tips from the academic support community. (Kirsha Trychta)